Skip to main content

Full text of "Original Preface To The Screwtape Letters"

See other formats


ORIGINAL PREFACE TO THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS 



by 

C. S. LEWIS 
Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford 



IT WAS DURING THE second German War that the letters of Screwtape appeared in 
(now extinct) The Guardian. I hope they did not hasten its death, but they certainly lost 
it one reader. A country clergyman wrote to the editor, withdrawing his subscription on 
the ground that "much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only er 
roneous but positively diabolical." 

In general, however, they had a reception I had never dreamed of. Reviews were either 
laudatory or filled with that sort of anger which tells an author that he has hit his target; 
sales were at first (by my standards) prodigious, and have continued steady. 

Of course, sales do not always mean what authors hope. If you gauged the amount of 
Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray. Sales 
of The Screwtape Letters, in their own little way, suffer from a similar ambiguity. It is 
the sort of book that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. 
It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards 
spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquillity in company with The 
Road Mender, John Inglesant, and The Life of the Bee. Sometimes it is bought for even 
more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little 
probationer who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also 
discovered why. 

"You see," said the girl, "we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical 
questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The 



best thing is to say you've read something. So they gave us a list of about ten books that 
usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them." 

"And you chose Screwtape?" 

'"Well, of course; it was the shortest." 

Still, when all allowances have been made, the book has had readers of the genuine sort 
sufficiently numerous to make it worthwhile answering some of the questions it has 
raised in their minds. The commonest question is whether I really "believe in the Devil." 

Now, if by "the Devil" you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent 
from all eternity, the answer is certainly No. There is no uncreated being except God. 
God has no opposite. No being could attain a "perfect badness" opposite to the perfect 
goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, 
will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left. 

The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, 
and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to 
God and, as a corollary, to us. These we may call devils. They do not differ in nature 
from good angels, but their nature is depraved. Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad 
Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, 
not of God, but of Michael. 

I believe this not in the sense that it is part of my creed, but in the sense that it is one of 
my opinions. My religion would not be in ruins if this opinion were shown to be false. 
Till that happens— and proofs of a negative are hard to come by— I shall retain it. It 
seems to me to explain a good many facts. It agrees with the plain sense of Scripture, the 
tradition of Christendom, and the beliefs of most men at most times. And it conflicts 
with nothing that any of the sciences has shown to be true. 



It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or 
evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils 
are depicted with bats' wings and good angels with birds' wings, not because anyone 
holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but 
because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to 
suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form be 
cause man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order 
than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, 
must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all. 

These forms are not only symbolical but were always known to be symbolical by 
reflective people. The Greeks did not believe that the gods were really like the beautiful 
human shapes their sculptors gave them. In their poetry a god who wishes to "appear" to 
a mortal temporarily assumes the likeness of a man. Christian theology has nearly 
always explained the "appearance" of an angel in the same way. It is only the ignorant, 
said Dionysius in the fifth century, who dream that spirits are really winged men. 

In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico's angels carry 
in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven. Later come the chubby 
infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nine 
teenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their 
total insipidity— the frigid houris of a testable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. 
In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying "Fear 
not." The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, "There, there." 

The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognised as 
symbolical. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as 
Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite, and obscenity, are far more like what the 
reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton's devils, by their grandeur and high 
poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But 
the really pernicious image is Goethe's Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really 



exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of 
Hell. The humorous, civilised, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to 
strengthen the illusion that evil in liberating. 

A little man may sometimes avoid some single error made by a great one, and I was 
determined that my own symbolism should at least not err in Goethe's way. For humor 
involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. What 
ever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this. 
Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture Hell as a state 
where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where 
everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, 
self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of 
symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age. 

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of 
"Admin." The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens 
loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we 
see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and 
minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white 
collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their 
voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of 
a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. 

Milton has told us that "devil with devil damned Firm concord holds." But how? 
Certainly not by friendship. A being which can still love is not yet a devil. Here again my 
symbol seemed to me useful. It enabled me, by earthly parallels, to picture an official 
society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally 
suave. Rudeness to one's superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one's equals 
might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course 
"Dog eat dog" is the principle of the whole organisation. Everyone wishes everyone else's 
discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the 



pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their 
expressions of grave respect, their "tributes" to one another's invaluable services form a 
thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred 
spurts out. 

This symbol also enabled me to get rid of the absurd fancy that devils are engaged in the 
disinterested pursuit of something called Evil (the capital is essential). Mine have no use 
for any such turnip ghost. Bad angels, like bad men, are entirely practical. They have two 
motives. The first is fear of punishment: for as totalitarian countries have their camps 
for torture, so my Hell contains deeper Hells, its "houses of correction." Their second 
motive is a kind of hunger. I feign that devils can, in a spiritual sense, eat one another; 
and us. Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one's 
fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one's 
own— to hate one's hatreds and resent one's grievances and indulge one's egoism 
through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of course be 
suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish. 

On Earth this desire is often called "love." In Hell I feign that they recognise it as 
hunger. But there the hunger is more ravenous, and a fuller satisfaction is possible. 
There, I suggest, the stronger spirit— there are perhaps no bodies to impede the 
operation— can really and irrevocably suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge 
its own being on the weaker's outraged individuality. It is (I feign) for this that devils 
desire human souls and the souls of one another. It is for this that Satan desires all his 
own followers and all the sons of Eve and all the host of Heaven. His dream is of the day 
when all shall be inside him and all that says "I" can say it only through him. This, I 
surmise, is the bloated-spider parody, the only imitation he can understand, of that 
unfathomed bounty whereby God turns tools into servants and servants into sons, so 
that they may be at last reunited to Him in the perfect freedom of a love offered from the 
height of the utter individualities which he has liberated them to be. 

But, as in Grimm's story, des traumte mit nut, this is all only myth and symbol. That is 



why the question of my own opinion about devils, though proper to be answered when 
once it was raised, is really of very minor importance for a reader of Screw-tape. To 
those who share that opinion, my devils will be symbol & of a concrete reality: to others, 
they will be personifications of abstractions, and the book will be an allegory. But it 
makes little difference which way you read it. For of course its purpose was not to 
speculate about diabolical life but to throw light from a new angle on the life of men. 

I am told that I was not first in the field and that someone in the seventeenth century 
wrote letters from a devil. I have not seen that book. I believe its slant was mainly 
political. But I gladly acknowledge a debt to Stephen McKenna's The Confessions of a 
Well-Meaning Woman. The connection may not be obvious, but you will find there the 
same moral inversion— the blacks all white and the whites all black —and the humour 
which comes of speaking through a totally humourless personna. I think my idea of 
spiritual cannibalism probably owes something to the horrible scenes of "absorbing" in 
David Lindsay's neglected Voyage to Arcturus. 

The names of my devils have excited a good deal of curiosity, and there have been many 
explanations, all wrong. The truth is that I aimed merely at making them nasty— and 
here too I am perhaps indebted to Lindsay— by the sound. Once a name was invented, I 
might speculate like anyone else (and with no more authority than anyone else) as to the 
phonetic associations which caused the unpleasant effect. I fancy that Scrooge, screw, 
thumbscrew, tapeworm, and red tape all do some work in my hero's name, and 
that slob, slobber, slubber, and gob have all gone into slubgob. 

Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the 
ripe fruit of many years' study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an 
equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. "My 
heart"— I need no other's— "showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly." 

I was often asked or advised to add to the original Letters, but for many years I felt not 
the least inclination to do it. Though I had never written anything more easily, I never 



wrote with less enjoyment. The ease came, no doubt, from the fact that the device of 
diabolical letters, once you have thought of it, exploits itself spontaneously, like Swift's 
big and little men, or the medical and ethical philosophy ofErewhon, or Anstey's Garuda 
Stone. It would run away with you for a thousand pages if you gave it its head. But 
though it was easy to twist one's mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not 
for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The work into which I had to 
project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every 
trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me 
before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it. 

I had, moreover, a sort of grudge against my book for not being a different book which 
no one could write. Ideally, Screwtape's advice to Wormwood should have been 
balanced by archangelical advice to the patient's guardian angel. Without this the 
picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man— 
and he would have to be a far better man than I— could scale the spiritual heights 
required, what "answerable style" could he use? For the style would really be part of the 
content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven. 
And nowadays even if you could write a prose like Traherne's, you wouldn't be allowed 
to, for the canon of "functionalism" has disabled literature for half its functions. (At 
bottom, every ideal of style dictates not only how we should say things but what sort of 
things we may say.) 

Then, as years went on and the stifling experience of writing the Letters became a 
weaker memory, reflections on this and that which seemed somehow to demand 
Screwtapian treatment began to occur to me. I was resolved never to write 
another Letter. The idea of something like a lecture or "address" hovered vaguely in my 
mind, now forgotten, now recalled, never written. Then came an invitation from 
theSaturday Evening Post, and that pressed the trigger.